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Northeast Kingdom town questions wind project proposal

(Host) A wind energy project planned for the Northeast Kingdom is getting a frosty reception in the town of Newark.

As VPR’s John Dillon reports, members of the town planning commission say they’re overwhelmed as they prepare to review what could be the state’s largest wind development.

(Dillon) Planning commission Chairman Kim Fried kicked off the meeting by reading a section of Newark’s town plan. The document highlights the untouched, scenic beauty of this town of about 500 people in far northern Caledonia County.

(Fried) “The environment is clean and healthy. It is these characteristics which the town of Newark intends to protect and preserve…. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Seneca Mountain.”

(Dillon) Seneca Mountain Wind is a partnership between Nordex, a wind turbine manufacturer based in Germany, and Eolian Renewable Energy out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Jack Kenworthy is Eolian’s CEO. He told the skeptical crowd that the company hopes to erect 30 to 35, 400-foot tall wind turbines in Newark, Brighton and several unincorporated towns and gores in remote Essex County.

The project would generate up to 100 megawatts, making it Vermont’s largest wind development.

(Kenworthy) “A facility like we’re contemplating here would be producing about 50,000 homes worth of power. It would be 108,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year not emitted.”

(Dillon) The questions then came flying in from all corners of the school gymnasium. Will the tall turbines have strobe lights? Who will protect the sensitive ridgeline habitat? One woman asked, what gives you the right to ruin our home?

Resident Keith Ballek seemed to sum up the mood of many when he asked why the Northeast Kingdom is targeted by wind companies. He mentioned a completed project in nearby Sheffield, and one under construction in Lowell.

(Ballek) “There’s obviously some kind of pattern here. … Why the Northeast Kingdom? Is it we don’t have the people to fight back? Why is it one region, I mean there’s wind blowing in other parts of the state. I’m just curious.” Applause..

(Dillon) Some of the most pointed questions and comments came from members of the planning commission. Chairman Kim Fried said the town has 30 days to file a response with the state Public Service Board to Eolian’s application for four wind testing towers.

(Fried) “What we have is a major corporation, OK, that is capable of spending lots of money over a long period of time telling us everything is OK and you’ve got 30 days to respond to it.”

(Dillon) The test towers are the first stage of the project. Fried said the town is struggling to meet the 30-day deadline without lawyers or outside consultants.

(Fried) “What we’re trying to do is understand a very complicated subject: the industrialization of Newark. We’re in Newark.”

(Dillon) Some in the crowd supported the project. Ken Gammell said he rode his snowmobile up to the nearby Sheffield project last winter, and was impressed by what he saw.

(Gammell) “They didn’t blow the top of the mountain off, matter of fact they did a nice job up there if you go up and look. I had my helmet on, couldn’t even hear the towers ‘til I took my helmet off. The other thing is, they’re producing 30 percent more electricity up there than what the government told them they’d be making.”

(Dillon) After the meeting, Jack Kenworthy of Eolian Wind said he hopes to change minds in Newark.

(Kenworthy) “We just started leasing property here as of a couple of weeks ago. So this is the beginning of the process for us. I think they have reacted most strongly to our proposal. But to be fair, they also received the notice – the 30-day application notice – pretty immediately after we had begun conversations here.”

(Dillon) Kenworthy told the meeting his company would most likely abandon its plans for towers in Newark if the town votes against the project.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon